How to be a Pappu

"What's the secret of Naveen Patnaik's success?" is the question I've been asked innumerable times in the past week, almost always by friends outside Orissa.  The Biju Janata Dal's sweeping victory in the state — more than two-thirds of all MLA and MP seats on its own, not counting the successes of other friendly parties with whom we had seat-sharing arrangements — is all the more eye-catching in light of the national 'wave' being mostly in the other direction.   

The answer is going to disappoint some political pundits, particularly the armchair analyst variety who make predictions based on an esoteric mix of experience and gut-feel.  Many such analysts had said that the BJD was in big trouble after its twelve-year alliance with the BJP ended in March.  But anyone who'd bothered to spend a couple of days travelling around the state would have easily gleaned the public mood, which is why no one from Orissa has asked me that question. 

The fact is that there is no secret formula.  There is, instead, a clean slate, commonsensical approach to politics that would sound rational to the average citizen, but often confounds hardcore politicos.  There are three key components of this new approach.  First, at the core of it, is a remarkable level of sincerity and dedication.  For a man who till the age of 50 spent lots of time in the rarefied social circles of New York, London and the south of France, Naveen Patnaik has not travelled abroad in more than a decade. And he rarely sees his personal home in Delhi either, only visiting the city a few times a year for official engagements.  This monk-like total immersion in Orissa does not go unnoticed by the public.   

The second is a deep commitment to good governance.  This goes far beyond lip service, and includes numerous instances of risky decisions.  That is, risky by the standards of conventional wisdom, but which ultimately turned out to be huge political successes.  In the early days, every time key cabinet colleagues were dismissed for corruption, or well-connected businessmen were arrested for criminal intimidation, there were widespread predictions that the government would fall because these actions were "naïve" and "impractical" and that "too many powerful forces were being taken on."  But instead, they resulted in sharp increases in popular support. 

Gutsy decisions were taken across the board.  The inefficient and corrupt lift irrigation corporation was broken up, unsettling thousands of employees, but it was replaced with the revolutionary pani panchayat system, where lakhs of villagers took responsibility for better management of water.  Good governance was not all about taking on entrenched vested interests.   Orissa, then broke and deeply indebted, also showed an open mind in quickly adopting the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act and the Value Added Tax (VAT) at a time when many states were opposing them tooth and nail.   

One of the most important decisions involved taking on the government of India and the powerful mining lobby.  Despite having enormous mineral reserves, Orissa had long been shortchanged by discriminatory central government policies which yielded a pittance in royalties and encouraged downstream investments to be made elsewhere.  The state government's new value addition policy linked the grant of mining leases to investments in the downstream processing plants.  This has led to a huge surge of investment:  more capital has flowed into Orissa in the past five years than in the previous fifty-five!  The subsequent surge in state revenues has enabled many pro-poor policies. 

The third component is diligent homework and a clinical, dispassionate, political decision-making process.   This may sound obvious to the lay person, but is still not common in political parties.  Take candidate selection, for instance.  In the absence of US-style primaries, most parties even today still choose candidates by a complex process that involves intrigue, lobbying, drama, sabotage, subterranean tests of loyalty, unverifiable caste arithmetic, and even kickbacks. That often leads to sub-optimal choices.  In Orissa, a quick glance at both BJP and Congress candidates reveal some breathtakingly unsuitable names who never stood a ghost of a chance.   

Almost from the day the BJD was formed, and perhaps because its founder was unfamiliar with politics in the beginning, the party has relied on extensive surveys, opinion polls, exit polls, etc.  These have never been devised to advertise the party's strength, but rather to assess the ground realities and highlight weaknesses.  They have always been conducted by highly rated external agencies, but quietly and only for internal party use.  When it came to candidate selection, the strict criterion of winnability was applied to all, and no amount of lobbying or political clout made any difference.  

All the above are easy to preach, but very, very hard to practice.  Only in retrospect, after twelve years, does it all fit into a big picture, but every step of the way was just one piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle and every decision was fraught with uncertainty and risk.  Naveen Patnaik, "Pappu" to his childhood friends, has had to walk a tightrope for years in order to lead his party to this hat-trick victory.  In the words of a well-known television personality and columnist, taking liberties with a popular song, Pappu can dance, saala !

The writer is a BJD MP.

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